What does it take to write a sermon? Well, many books have been written on that topic, and all I have to offer here are a few suggestions. They’re borne in experience, have been tested by my homiletics students—and sometimes rejected. I admit that they’re a bit crotchety at points—I’ve been a preacher who has spent years sitting in the pew, and have heard far too many sermons that were clunkers not to be a bit crotchety, I guess. But take these suggestions for what they’re worth to you.
· Preach good news. So much preaching is so full of the law, of the “do’s and don’ts” of the Pauline Epistles, of warnings against sin, of doctrines that confuse (“leave difficult things for books,” said Augustine), of platitudes, of distinctives that pit us against other Christians, and so on. The gospel is good news. It is joy. It is what parched lips long for. Offer living water, not dishwater; offer a light that shows the way to safe harbor; not a spotlight for keeping the crime rate low.
· No recipe turns out great sermons unless one of the ingredients is a mysterious, creative, imaginative moment that contains the sermon’s nugget. Such moments are half gift from God, half talent, and half stubborn persistence. I had an old teacher (Marrion Snapper) who told me “the imagination is the door by which the Spirit enters our hearts.” If you read the Psalms or Jesus’ parables or the Song of Songs, you will understand.
· Beauty is redemptive. The universe has an aesthetic dimension. It strikes me that one of the divine uses of beauty is its ability to turn us from the things that weigh us down to the heavens—or the poetry or temples—that declare the glory of God. Whether it is a song sung with holy passion, or a painting that sheds new light on something we would otherwise not have seen, or a sermon that seizes the heart as well as the brain—beauty has the power to turn us towards the divine. Cultivate beauty, especially in sermons.
· Don’t mistake the sermon for advice (such as you’re reading here!). This is the pragmatic turn in preaching, absolutely at home with this age’s concern for self-help, easy maps to success, and ten bulleted points but no narrative. Preaching is about the story mostly, and only rarely, advice. The theological synonym for advice is “repent,” and its genre is prophecy. Real prophets are extremely reluctant.
· On a more mundane level, write a manuscript. If you don’t, you’ll soon be preaching the same three sermons (or paragraphs or themes within a sermon), over and over. Manuscripts also force you to plainly state the tough issues (or beautiful truths) in a text that you might otherwise gloss over by speaking of them off the top of your head.
· Writing a manuscript in not nearly enough. Editing is indispensable. Editing is the work of getting sloppy sermons into shape: making sure you’ve made your points to your satisfaction, finding the right turn of phrase, building fences between you and needless repetition or poorly thought out tangents, and giving yourself a script for practicing delivery or memorizing. I spend as much time editing as writing. It is also the only way I can build literary repetition, assonance, rhyme, and most especially, greater simplicity and economy into my sermon text. If you think you can do without a manuscript, listen to some politician or public official speak unscripted on the radio. It is usually very painful and not something I would volunteer to do from the pulpit.
· What you do with the manuscript on Sunday is up to you. You can memorize your sermon. You can put it on note cards. You can take the manuscript in some form or other to the pulpit with you. On the pulpit, you can add or subtract—so long as you are aware of the temptation to add and subtract for lesser reasons. Beware, however—no pulpit strategy is so prone to failure as improvisation.
· Don’t be too earnest. Yes, what you say seems important. But no one likes a nag. So relax. Spend more time on illustration, on humor, on retelling the story, and on reprising the good news. Spend less time trying to get it all in, or speaking as if this is their last, best chance to get it right. This is just one of up to 2500 or more times your parishioners might be in church to hear a sermon.
· Be brief. Some people may be used to long sermons, but so what? A few stellar preachers may even have built a career out of hour-long sermons. And a few self-selected all-pro pew sitters may love long sermons. But are these the people you really need to reach? No. The youth, those who have not made up their minds, those who are visiting a church for the one time in their life and have learned to listen in front of a TV . . . I’m telling you, this country is ripe for preachers who can do good news in 20 minutes (1600 words) or less. Of course, that also means more editing.
· Find ways to cultivate your imagination. Take a few small risks. Try an object lesson for a sermon. Write it as a children’s story. Copy the style/rhyme/brevity of a children’s story. Do it as a one-woman play. Poke fun at yourself. Project some art on the overhead and make it the outline for your sermon. Use a text other than scripture. The possibilities are endless even if the good news is one key thing.
· Use self-disclosure. Build a relationship with your congregation that is rooted in the real you. Be honest and direct. I’m not talking about being a tattler or being self-absorbed or going on and on about the minutiae of your life or family. But strategic use of self-disclosure makes you, and therefore what you say, more real and believable.
· Don’t spend too much time trying to say too much that’s too hard to understand. Simplicity isn’t just a lifestyle choice. It works with sermons too. But simplicity is very hard to achieve. Jesus did it well, Paul not nearly as well. However, in our media-saturated, non-linear, secondary-oral culture, people can’t follow complex or dense arguments nearly as well as they used to. They also don’t have the mental theological infrastructure to help them file what they hear. So simplicity is the tried and true way forward.
· By all means, when some time has passed, pick up an old sermon and redo it for the second time the way it should have been done the first time.
· Find a friend, usually a fellow pastor, who will ruthlessly dissect your sermons (with a little love left over). And then do the same for him or her. If you really do this, you will learn a lot. I met my first sermon critic each month over lunch. He taught me, for example, that preaching isn't nagging--much to the relief of my first congregation.
· Accept failure with a smile. Learn from it. But don’t get too upset about it. No runner wins every race, though a real runner will enjoy every one.
So what do you think? What would you add to this list? Or subtract? Or, if you listen to sermons, which piece of advice would you underline or add? Click the "comments" link below and add your two cents' worth.